EDITORIAL: The 10 Best Films of 2011

(clip art: Paste Magazine, movie photos: IMDB)

All of the fancy critics out there, who get to see exclusive advance premieres and attend film festivals, get to see all of the good movies ahead of time and are always ready when the calendar hits December with their annual "10 Best of..." lists.  I don't get to be that guy.  I have to scrap and travel to catch the hard-to-find movies that don't come to every theater in America.  As a school teacher (and now school "suit") who always gets a Winter Break across Christmas and New Year's, my annual goal is a final push to see as many hard-to-find movies as I can over the break.  With seeing nine movies over break (as of today), I've achieved that.  For the first time ever, I feel in the same stride as the big-wig critics to confidently release my own "10 Best of 2011" list.

As with every year, I have a regular job and I can't see everything.  Even in watching 53 movies this year, I have to choose my spots.  The biggest miss that sits in my craw is Drive, where Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks are supposed to be pretty good.  DVD will have to do.  In other cases, it comes down to availability out in the Chicago suburbs.  Many of the year-end award-contending movies will drop in limited screenings in New York and Los Angeles before December 31 in order to qualify for the Academy Awards and later release themselves for wider audiences in January.  Sometimes, as was the case with movies like Shame, My Week with Marilyn, andThe Artist, downtown Chicago can get a few screens of those exclusive movies.  I've been lucky enough to commute in to catch those, but I must note that I missed the highly regarded espionage mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Meryl Streep's commanding performance in The Iron Lady, and the 9/11 Tom Hanks-Sandra Bullock film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (the latter two haven't even made it to Chicago yet).  So, here's my best shot.

In keeping with the blog's theme, each member of the list will be backed up by its best life lesson of the typical three from each review.  Halfway through 2011 in June, I did present an editorial of the "Best of 2011 (so far)" and their lessons.  At the time, that Top 5 list was:  1)Source Code, 2) Midnight in Paris, 3) Super 8, 4) The Adjustment Bureau, and 5) Soul Surfer.  See how many survived.

HONORABLE MENTION:  I only gave out six five-star reviews this year and there was a traffic jam of four-star reviews that all couldn't make the final "10 Best" list.  They will get some love from me in a future column (don't worry).  Here are the honorable mentions (in no particular order and linked to my full reviews):  

The Ides of MarchMy Week with MarilynThe Girl with the Dragon TattooShameThe MuppetsBridesmaidsMoneyballWarriorRise of the Planet of the ApesSoul SurferSuper 8Mission: Impossible Ghost ProtocolCaptain America: The First AvengerFast FiveCourageousIn TimeFriends with BenefitsLarry CrowneX-Men: First ClassThorThe Adjustment BureauLimitless


10.  The Help-- This runaway summer hit deserves a spot on my list.  Well-told from its source novel, it possesses the best performance by an ensemble cast of the year.  Everyone gets their moments and are unforgettably good, particularly Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as our main maids.  I've been championing both actresses' causes for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars ever since.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE ROLE OF A CARETAKER-- While dismissed as menial work, the dedication of day care providers, maids, butlers, au pairs, nurses, teachers, and even your weekend babysitter, among others, is no less important that a professional career.  They bear the important task of raising, teaching, and influencing our children when parents can't (or won't in some cases).  Respect their hard work every chance you get.

9.  Crazy, Stupid, Love.-- In the months since it's late summer release, I haven't been able to get out of my head how great the movie was.  It's rare to see a romantic comedy outnumber a thriller for plot twists and this one did, creating a satisfyingly great experience.  It was great to see Steve Carell not be Michael Scott for a change and the same can be said for getting a lightened up and non-dramatic Ryan Gosling.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: REINVENTION THAT IS SKIN DEEP IS JUST THAT-- Plenty of people, Steve Carell's character included, hit lows in their lives caused by big changes and seek reinvention.  Out with the old.  In with the new.  For some people all they ever accomplish is the shortcut of external reinvention.  You know what I'm talking about.  How many women out there feel empowered when they get a new haircut, but are still the same person they were before?  The same can be asked for guys that go to the gym.  True reinvention is deeper than just a new look and fresh exterior.  True reinvention is a whole new attitude, a new outlook,  the discarding and changing of habits, and not regressing to what was previous.

8.  Midnight in Paris-- Speaking of movies that I couldn't get out of my head for weeks, Woody Allen's night trips through Paris made for one of the most charming movies I've ever seen.  Well acted and gorgeous with its setting, it will make you want to stamp your passport to the City of Light tomorrow.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE ILLUSION THAT LIFE DIFFERENT FROM YOUR OWN IS BETTER-- Many people observe, from the outside looking in, how their lives might have been different if some key choices or elements were changed or different.  Some people talk about "the one that got away" with love or maybe a missed career opportunity.  They may even enviously think that the life they see in someone else should be theirs instead.  All of it can be an illusion.  Your life is yours because of the here and now, good or bad.  The choices you took and the places where you grew as a person define you more than the "woulda-coulda-shoulda's."

7.  Hugo-- It's a small miracle that an old-school great filmmaker like Martin Scorsese embraced CGI and 3D to the extent that he did to create a family film instead of his usual violent fare.  Hugo is a fitting and excellent homage to silent films, a clear soft spot for Scorsese.  Based on the award-winning children's novel,The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it is the most technically well made movie this year with outstanding design, effects, and camera work.  It's my highest four-star review before the next six that scored five.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE HISTORY OF EARLY CINEMA-- Hugo and Martin Scorsese, like George Melies did in his own day, show how movies grew out of magic.  Back then, never before had people seen something so large, encompassing, and visually creative.  The art dazzled audiences and many of the time-honored techniques that started the medium still exist today, even with the power of CGI and 3D.  Marvel about how it all used to be.

6.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2-- The fitting conclusion to arguably the best film franchise in history was massive in scope and exciting in its dramatic tone.  It delivered on its massive hype with a wall-to-wall adventure and gave our heroes the best bookend to their long story we could hope for in a movie.  Even if this rating was a "lifetime achievement award" of sorts, the final film's greatness stands on its own.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF COURAGE-- Different acts of varying degrees get the label and credit of being courageous, many times for the wrong reasons or too high a level of acclaim.  Many times simple, benign life decisions that avoid an inconvenience (going green), a consequence (following the rules when others are not), overcome a fear (skydiving), or make a seemingly big change (career and relationship choices) get the courage tag.  Those examples do require some level of courage, but the highest level of courage is the willingness to give one's life for another.  There is no greater courage or sacrifice.  Several characters in these final two films, while fictitious and occupy a world of magic, personify that level of courage and are a very worthy life lesson example for us in the audience.

5.  War Horse-- Call me sentimental, but I fall for Steven Spielberg heart-string tugs every time, whether it's an adorable alien or his historical dramas.  War Horse deservedly earns a place next to his other greats for those very same reasons, yet it's his fair and honest treatment of World War I that elevates the movie over just being a really pretty version of some syrupy animal-love movie.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: NOTHING IS EVER TRULY LOST-- We lose things we care about, both living and non-living, all the time, sometimes by accident and sometimes by fate.  However, like our forgotten and bequeathed hero toys of Toy Story 3, the things we lose or part company with go on to serve someone or something else, even in a different form.  Somewhere, your beloved first car was traded in to be someone else's first car or parts to help someone else. Yet, if fate allows it, the things we truly love can return to us someday, creating a proper and beautiful reunion.

4.  Source Code--My top film from the first half of the year survives to be in the top 5 at the end of the year.  Source Code has become a little-seen gem since its April release.  By far, it is the year's smartest, most fast-paced, and best thriller.  Its twists and play on time travel beg for repeated viewing.  It's a shame and an outrage that Duncan Jones's movie isn't getting more attention from audiences or awards. (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON:  THE DEBATE ON THE EXISTENCE OF FATE-- Without giving too much of Source Code away, a much-debated parallel to the technology present in the movie is whether or not fate exists.  Some characters believe it and others don't.  Can the Source Code change the fate of the train bombing or are those people destined to die no matter what happens and what can be changed?  This debate is much like the contrasting notions of how everyone either has a "plan" laid out for them in this world (by a higher power) or if free will and chance dictate their actions.  In any case, there is a big difference one's self-concept and motivations to make the choices they do based on whether or not they believe in fate.  Which side of the debate do you gravitate too?

3.  The Artist-- This is the movie I am most proud of being able to see in time for this list.  It's the little movie that's winning all of the precursor awards before the Golden Globes and Oscars, and deservedly so.  For those who still haven't heard, The Artist is an homage to the days of silent film that is itself a silent film created with modern tricks.  It is brilliantly done on so many levels, from the different acting talents required to be in a silent film, to the music, pace, and dazzle to be a movie about a great actor's rise-and-fall in show business.  It deserves every award that comes its way.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: HOLDING ON TO ARTISTIC INTEGRITY AND RESISTING CHANGE-- With the onset of the talkie era, George refuses to change with the times.  He stands by his craft, while others say he's from a generation of "mugging" to the camera.  George's stalwart stance hurts his career, but it's a battle he's willing to stake his integrity on.  Strong or not, it might not be the best stance.

2.  50/50-- This is the movie that snuck up on me the most in 2011.  After seeing the previews, I dismissed it and thought it couldn't be good.  When I finally saw it, the result was amazing and pleasantly surprising.  As equally moving as it is funny, 50/50 struck the most perfect balance between drama and comedy possible in dealing with the mortality of cancer.  From start to finish, it continuously impressed me and hit me like a ton of bricks.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: WHAT TO DO WHEN LIFE THROWS YOU A CURVEBALL-- When life gives you unexpected bad news, like a death in the family, job loss, or, in this case, a cancer diagnosis, you can't predict how anyone, including yourself, is going to react to it.  Everyone and every situation is different.  The life changes and repercussions of that curveball also can't be predicted, but how you deal with it, come to terms with it, and live your life afterwards says a lot about you.  Those who maintain their positivity, and their sanity for that matter, are something special.

1.  The Descendants-- I can't say that The Descendants's place atop my list is a slam dunk no-doubter, but, to me, it was the best movie I saw in 2011.  50/50 has more comedy, The Artist has more grandeur, and all kinds of movies are more exciting and louder, but The Descendants had all of the intangibles.  Anchored by emotionally raw performances from George Clooney (the best he's ever been) and newcomer Shailene Woodley, the movie tells an intimate story of a family crisis wholly and completely, with all of the quirks, flaws, and blemishs of real life along the way.  The movie hit every note of cinematic quality for me and was easily the best written movie this year.  (FULL REVIEW)

ITS BEST LESSON: SPEAKING YOUR PEACE-- You cannot help but watch The Descendants and put yourself in Matt King's shoes for the many tough spots he's put in.  What truths do you tell young daughters who look up to their mother?  What do you tell her proud father or her friends?  What would you say to the man who's having an affair with your wife?  What can you even say to your wife in all of that when she can't answer back and maybe won't ever answer back?  There are moments like that throughout the film where characters need to speak their pace, whether that peace is good news, bad news, loving support, hurtful truth, assertiveness, or even the things you shouldn't say and, therefore, leave at peace